These are serious times and those running for office tend to be serious people. But that doesn’t mean your heavy, dull, policy-laden stump speech is going to connect with people. In fact, most stump speeches on the local level follow a cookie-cutter formula that goes something like this:
Intro: “My name is Tim Smith.”
Local shout out: “Like you, I grew up here in Cleveland.”
Family shout out: “I’m lucky to have an amazing wife and three kids.”
Local shout out No.2: “I attended state university, right down the road.”
A little about my magnanimous resume: “Today I work for (big corporation), and use my free time to give back to the community by …”
To put it glibly, thanks for reading me your LinkedIn page.
This is what my firm tries to overcome. In 2013, I founded Laugh Staff, where stand-up comedians write speeches for toast givers. The idea was a spinoff from my seven years of doing part-time stand-up. Here’s a little of what we’ve learned about helping stump speeches suck less.
Use monologue jokes for inspiration, end on the laugh trigger.
Just about every late-night talk show host tells 5-10 minutes of topical monologue jokes at the beginning of each show. For those who remember the mid 90s, Jay Leno’s expanded monologue was one of the key factors in overtaking David Letterman in the late-night wars.
Monologue jokes follow a specific, almost analytical formula. They have to be simple, funny and visual. Here are a few examples:
A new study said U.S. pets are becoming more overweight. Yeah, it’s gotten so bad cats are actually using a ball of yarn to make their own hammocks.
The new Baywatch movie comes out this weekend. It stars The Rock, Zac Efron, and a small cameo from shirts.
A woman burnt from Starbucks coffee was awarded $100,000. Even crazier? The check she was given had her name spelled right.
Every joke was topical enough that most people would understand, and each created a visual with the punchline. What makes jokes like these good? The laugh trigger.
The laugh trigger is the last or second to last word in a monologue joke that takes the joke in another direction. It’s unexpected, but still makes sense to the premise (people know about Starbuck’s notorious spelling mistakes, Zac Efron and The Rock’s buff bodies, and cute cats playing with yarn).
Here are a few examples of how humor could work in a stump speech, depending on the candidate:
When I told my wife I was running for council she said I was crazy. When I told her the alternative, being at home all day with her, she called me a genius.
They say local politics is full of drama, ego and corruption. I say they’re wrong. They forgot deception, backstabbing and Fox News.
They say as a public servant two of the most important things you can sell are integrity and hope. If you elect me you can expect integrity and hope, with the occasional sell of Girl Scout cookies and candy bars…. my daughter really wants those badges.
So the formula would go: Setup (something factual and believable). Punchline something that relates to setup, AND still believable. Laugh Trigger: saving the funniest word for last.
Humanize with humor and define deficiencies
People are quick to tell you what they’re good at, but slow to tell you they’re weaknesses. Get them out of the way quick with some self-depreciating humor.
When I did stand-up, the first words out of my mouth were an acknowledgment of my height (I’m “5 4’). I would say to the crowd:
I’m not sure how this happened, I have two brothers who are full-grown adult men. My older brother is fireman, my younger brother is on the partner track at his law firm, and I’m still waiting for puberty to kick in.
In a stump speech, you can show your funny side by taking your position down to the studs.
I’m not going to lie to you, that’s the media’s job. What I can tell is that I didn’t graduate from a top school and didn’t graduate at the top of my class, but I did save a bunch of money by switching my auto insurance to Progressive.
Some say I’m unqualified for to run and that I’m setting myself up for failure. To that person I say, ‘I know, mom.’
It is John F. Kennedy who said it’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. And I am proud to say I’ve never missed an opportunity to vote watching American Idol.
Stump speeches, like most things in our life, sometimes just need a little tweaking. If you can inject a little humor, you can inject a little enthusiasm to your audience.
Like Frank Luntz said in his famous book Words That Work, “People need to know you before they hear you.”
And before they know you, they at least need to like you. Be funny and smile.
Josh Womack is the co-founder of Laugh Staff.